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When it comes to the community outreach efforts of religious communities, most of our attention is focused on common ministries like soup kitchens or disaster relief. One area that we often overlook is the good work that many churches are doing to enrich and support marriages. Churches are uniquely suited to not only strengthen the families sitting in their pews but also those in the surrounding community. As Harvard University professor Tyler J. VanderWeele has explained about the positive effects of faith on marriage, "religious communities may provide important teaching about the sacred nature of marriage, extra support for families and children, and a sense of community with shared values." And research shows that couples who regularly pray and attend religious services together tend to have higher-quality marriages and are less likely to divorce.

One church that has made marriage enrichment a major component of its community outreach efforts is Watermark Community Church, a large evangelical church with four campuses in Texas. For over a decade, Watermark has been investing in the marriages and families in their community through a series of programs tailored to specific stages of life. Watermark’s popular 16-week marriage intervention ministry, Re|engage, has been implemented in hundreds of churches across the United States. 

John McGee, the senior director of Watermark resources and marriage ministries, helped launch the church’s original marriage program over 15 years ago and co-wrote the curriculum for Re|engage. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Pastor McGee about Watermark’s marriage ministry and the invaluable role religious congregations can play in strengthening families in their communities.

Alysse ElHage: I was honestly surprised to learn just how much Watermark is doing to enrich marriages in both the church and the community. Tell us how this ministry began? 

John McGee: About 15 years ago, we really felt like this was a big opportunity. Marriage is a topic that people care deeply about, and it’s also a time that people will come to church, either when they’re preparing for marriage, or when they need to get married, or when they’re struggling in marriage. This is one of the last opportunities the church has in terms of outreach. We also feel like the mandate of a church is to make disciples, and marriage is a really good venue to help that happen. You can preach a sermon about how we should forgive, and that may or may not be implemented, but if you and your spouse are frustrated with each other, and we talk to you about how to forgive your spouse, then you’re probably going to go back and implement that.

Alysse ElHage: Watermark offers a variety of programs for both engaged and married couples. Tell us about your marriage preparation programs

John McGee: We operate in four categories: prepare, establish, enrich, and restore. On the prepare side, we have a ministry called Merge, and it’s an eight-week class that covers topics like communication, sex, finances, in-laws, and God’s view of marriage. It’s one-half lecture and then one-half discussion in a small group with a facilitator. And I use the word “facilitator” because it’s easy to understand, but really, we’ve got some very passionate leaders that walk with these engaged couples, and they ask great, probing questions. They’re not afraid to get in there and say, “You guys are treating each other terribly.” Or even, “We’re not sure you should go forward [with the marriage].” 

We’ll have over 1,000 couples come through a year in the Merge program. [And these are couples who are] engaged or seriously dating. And that’s been one of the trends we’ve seen, which is that the more educated they are, the more likely they want to get this right. These couples are very skittish, so they think about this class as almost like running a gauntlet before they get engaged. Which we think is great. Because they don’t have dresses picked out and grandma doesn’t have her plane ticket from New Jersey, they do not face some of the constraints that are often on engaged couples. 

"As long as a couple believes they can get well and haven’t crossed some line that they can’t get back from, they can make it. But the second they believe no one has ever gone through what they’ve gone through, then they’re in trouble." 

Alysse ElHage: You also offer a variety of ministries for married couples who are in different seasons of their lives—including those who just need a refresher and those who are really struggling. Tell us about those ministries.

John McGee: Once couples are married, we’ve got a ministry called Foundation Groups. We’ll take five newlywed couples, and we’ll put them in a small group for 15 months. We’ll give them a mentor couple, and they’ll work through some [marriage] books. And they’ll do communication, sex, finances and, again, God’s view of marriage. They’re now much more open to some of those conversations. For example, when we talked about forgiveness as an engaged couple, they couldn’t even conceive of a time they might need to extend forgiveness or that their partner would have any habits that would drive them crazy or those kinds of things. And now we go back and teach them some of the same things we did in Merge, but they’re really open to feedback. 

The second piece is really about connecting them to other couples that can encourage them in their marriage and tell them to keep going, but also to lean into them because we believe deeply in this “life-on-life” model of ministry. There’s a verse in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where the apostle Paul says that we’re to admonish and encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, and be patient with all men. We need, at times, people to admonish us in our marriage and say, “Wow, John, you’re really harsh with Pam.” Or, “You’re not doing a good job seeing her perspective.” We all need that. We also need people telling us, “Hey, you’re doing a good job, keep going.” 

We’ve found that when couples are deeply known in this way, a) they stick in our church, and b) they just do well [in their marriage]. They’ve got a support system to fall back on. The couples that struggle in our church are the ones who are disconnected and isolated. Couples that are deeply known, by and large, are doing well in their marriages. 

Alysse ElHage: That concept of being “deeply known” is so powerful, and it really speaks to the importance of community to helping married couples stay the course.  

John McGee: It is [powerful] because it keeps couples from the binary choice of having an awesome marriage or no marriage at all. Other married couples can tell them, “You’re kind of a jerk, and you probably should go and apologize. And your marriage is going to be okay.” Or financially, if a couple is trending in the wrong direction, rather than waiting until something really cataclysmic happens, these other couples can step in and help. They start out life together seeking advice and counsel from other married couples, as opposed to trying to do it on their own. Most churches have some kind of Sunday school or small groups mechanism, and it’s an untapped goldmine. 

Alysse ElHageRe|engage is one of the major marriage enrichment programs that you offer at Watermark, which, as I mentioned earlier, has been implemented in other churches across the nation. What is Re|engage all about and why do you think it has caught the attention of other churches? 

John McGeeRe|engage is about both restoring and enriching. One of our taglines is, “Whether you’re a one and want to get to a two, or you’re a seven and you want to get to an eight, Re|engage is a safe place to reconnect, reignite, or resurrect your marriage.” And we’ve got couples all the way to those who’ve got divorce papers in hand. 

There are three components. The first is a large group time that runs 50 weeks a year, where we’ll have either a teaching or a testimony every night. By testimony, I mean a couple will stand up and say, “We had an affair in our past. Here’s how we moved through that.” Or “We lost a child, or we just grew distant.” What that does is really give hope to a lot of the couples. And we’ve found that as long as a couple believes they can get well, and they haven’t crossed some line that they can’t get back from, then they can make it. But the second they believe they’re the only ones, and no one has ever gone through what they’ve gone through, then they’re in trouble. 

"The church is a place where there’s a defined, tight-knit community that can model great marriages."

The second part is a small group experience with a 16-lesson curriculum. The content is really short. We wrote it for the husband who doesn’t want to read 25 pages of dense content and have four hours of discussion with his wife. But he could give us two and a half pages, and he could then do some thinking on his own. 

What often happens in that small group is that couples come in, they loved the large group experience, and then Re-engage really does become that small group for them. So that’s where they really are known, to use that language again. And they journey with these new friends together, which really is a big part of the beauty of Re|engage. Interestingly, more than half the people in Re|engage do not attend our church, which makes it a great community outreach tool. 

We have about 300 churches now that are active with us, and more are in pilot mode, so it continues to grow. It’s pretty common for someone to refer their friend in a city they don’t live in, and say, “I saw there’s a Re|engage at such and such a church, you should go check it out.” And they’ll go and see some growth or healing in their marriage, and they’ll stay at that church. So that’s been really fun to watch other churches have some of the same joy that we have with our couples. 

Alysse ElHage: One of your sayings is “Healthy marriages make healthy churches,” and, of course, healthy marriages also make healthy communities. What would you say to other church leaders who are not doing much in this area of marriage enrichment—why do they need to be making more of an intentional effort to strengthen families?  

John McGee: Well, hopefully, a pastor wants to make disciples, and nobody’s neighbors are walking the streets, asking if someone has a Bible study they can go to. They are asking relationship questions; they want to have a great marriage. I think those are the questions that people are asking now as opposed to maybe 50 years ago. 

And the best leaders in the church generally have great marriages. On a theological level, we believe that God’s made a covenant with us. When we’re married well, we mirror that covenant. And John 13 says that’s actually how people are going to know that we’re followers and disciples of Christ is the way we love one another. That’s talking about the whole world, but it has to start with the person you wake up next to. And the best testimony we can give to the world is love, and the primary place we should do so is with our spouse. I think it becomes a powerful testimony: if you’ve got a great marriage, people will ask you about it. And if you’re honest about your struggles as well, you always have a mechanism to talk about spiritual things with people. I think that church leaders are supposed to love the city that they’re in, according to Jeremiah 17. And one of the best ways to love our city is to fight for the marriages in our communities.

Alysse ElHage: Just to follow up on that, why do you believe that communities of faith are particularly suited to this task

John McGee: For church ministries, we often think about soup kitchens and things like that. Giving a kid a meal is a helpful thing, but giving a kid a family, that would change his trajectory, statistically. And the church is a place where there’s a defined, tight-knit community that can model great marriages. A lot of times, we’re not born [into] great marriages, but we learn how to have them. And I think churches are a great place to learn [how to do that].

And then on a theological level, a lot of relationship education is based on reciprocation and negotiation. What’s great about Christian marriage is that we’ve got categories for unconditional commitment, unconditional forgiveness, grace, and kindness—irrespective of what the other person does. In every marriage, someone is going to have to do that for a season. Christians don’t always have the best marriages, but they should absolutely have the best marriages because they are forgiven people, and it’s easy to forgive if you’ve been forgiven. And it’s easy to love if you’ve been loved. And it’s easy to commit unconditionally if you’ve had a God commit unconditionally to you. 

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.